A United Methodist Pastor's Theological Reflections

"But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory (nikos) through our Lord Jesus Christ." - I Corinthians 15:57

Sunday, July 31, 2011

A Nascar Prayer

When we pray in a public setting, it helps to know your audience so that the prayer will make sense in their context.  With that being said, I'm not sure if prayer is meant to utilize the autotune feature. 
Enjoy this Nascar Prayer offered by a pastor.

Sunday Worship Preview - August 7

Sunday, August 7 - (8:15 A.M. & 11:00 A.M. Traditional Services & 9:45 A.M. Praise Service) & Wednesday, August 10 (6:30 P.M. Casual Service @ Crossroads, 2095 Fair Avenue)
Sermon"Joseph: Part I"

Features - 8th Sunday After Pentecost & Holy Communion

Scripture - Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28 & Matthew 14:22-33

Theme - On this Sunday, we begin a two-part sermon series on the life of Joseph from the Old Testament.  The early part of Joseph’s relationship with his brothers gives us an opportunity to think about how we are to relate to one another.

For Better, For Worse

This past weekend, I had the privilege of officiating at my nephew's wedding on a beautiful island near Seattle, Washington.  They chose Ecclesiastes 4:9-12 as their scripture which focuses on the importance of having someone who will be there when you fall.  I also shared that from this same book of the bible, the author talks about the different seasons of life which include a time to dance and a time to laugh.  With the ceremony taking place on a beautiful day in the Pacific Northwest there was plenty of dancing and joy as we celebrated their covenant of Christian marriage.

After arriving home from the wedding trip/vacation, I received news that my nephew's father who had been in ill for a long time passed away at his home in Pennsylvania.   My nephew and his wife had already caught a plane to fly from Seattle to Pennsylvania to prepare for his father's funeral service.

In just one weekend, my nephew experienced the wonderful season of dancing and laughter as well as the season of mourning and loss.  Thankfully, this newlywed couple can be there for each other through the good and the bad times. 

Below is the sermon I offered at their wedding just a few days ago.

Wedding Sermon - Whidbey Island, Washington, July 29, 2011

Kevin and Danielle, on behalf of everyone
here today, I want to say thank you for
inviting us to be part of your special day.  You
have been gracious hosts and we are
enjoying our time with you on this beautiful

I do want you to know that I gave up tickets to
a U2 concert just to be with you today.  But your
wedding is so much better than a rock concert.  It’s
a celebration of your new life together as
husband and wife.  This is why the writer
of Ecclesiastes talks about the different
seasons of life when he says, “For everything there is
a season, and a time for every matter under
heaven; a time to laugh and a time to dance.”

Weddings are a time of celebration and so we
celebrate with you.  I think it’s worth noting
that the first miracle that Jesus performed was
at a wedding when he turned water
into wine.  Jesus loved a good party because
he knew that the Kingdom of God is meant
to be a party, not just in heaven, but especially
here on earth. 

Danielle, and Kevin, I hear that you like to
attend ugly sweater parties.  In fact, that’s how
you met almost two years ago.  As we have
talked over the phone to prepare for your
wedding today, I can easily tell that
you both enjoy life and being with family
and friends. I’ve seen your facebook pictures!
You know how to enjoy life.
One of the things we talked about over
the phone was that it’s important to have fun in life,
especially as a married couple.  I mean, just
look around us.  God has created this beautiful
earth for us to care for and enjoy, including
the Pacific Northwest, Mt. Rainier, incredible
sunsets, unusual rock formations, mountains,
oceans, and exotic animals. God has created
all of this for us to enjoy and celebrate.

In his book, “What’s So Amazing About
Grace,” Phillip Yancey writes, “It is a terrible
thing to be grateful and have no one to thank,
to be awed and have no one to worship.”

Kevin & Danielle, as you begin your new
life together, know that you do have someone
to thank and to worship, the one who created
the heavens and the earth.  But also know that
you will always have each other to celebrate
God’s beautiful creation together.
Returning to the writer of Ecclesiastes who
has just told us about the different seasons
of life which include a time to dance and
a time to laugh, he also has some other
important words for us that come from
your scripture reading.  He says that
“Two are better than one, because they
have a good reward for their toil.  For
if they fall, one will lift up the other; but
woe to the one is alone and falls and does
not have another to help.”

One of the blessings of being a pastor, is that I
get to experience this scripture lived out in the
life of the church.

In one of the churches I served, a man met with
me to tell me about how his world was crashing
down all around him.  He and his wife had good
jobs and a loving marriage.  But all of this was
tested when he made a mistake and lost his job.

He didn’t know what to do since he felt that he
had lost the trust of his wife not to mention that
his mistake meant that he would probably need
to leave the occupation that he loved.

I listened to his pain for at least an hour there in
my office.  I could tell that he felt lost and a
sense of hopelessness.  And then the strangest thing
happened that I will never forget.

After we prayed, he got up to leave and as he
opened my office door, there stood his wife.
Knowing that he was meeting with me, and
knowing that he was going through a very
difficult time, she wanted to be there for him
and let him know that she loved him very much.

They embraced for the next couple of minutes telling
each other over and over again, “I love you.”  And
they said to each other, “We’ll get through this.  I
love you.”

When they finally left my office, call it a sixth
sense or a premonition, but I knew that he was
going to be OK.  They were going to be OK.
Why?  “Two are better than one for if one
falls, the other will be there to help.”

Danielle & Kevin – Our prayer for you is
that you will continue to laugh and dance
and enjoy God’s beautiful
creation together.  And during those times when
you stumble and fall, remember that you have each
other.  And you have God.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Marriage, Politics, & Compromise

As I prepare to officiate for my nephew's wedding this weekend, our nation's debt ceiling crisis dominates the news.  My wedding homily will highlight the importance for a husband and wife to look out for the interests of each other.  Can a connection be made between marriage and what we're seeing on Capitol Hill?

Sometimes, married couple participate in a wedding renewal service.  I have officiated for many of these.  These services remind the couple of the vows they made to each other during their wedding ceremony.  The traditional vows which are still used today in the United Methodist Church offer these words:

"In the name of God, I (Name), take you, (Name), to be my wife/husband, \to have and to hold from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, until we are parted by death.  This is my solemn vow."

These are beautiful words, but what does it mean to live them out day after day and year after year?  When I ask couples who come to renew their wedding vows what has helped them the most, they almost always say something about the art of compromise.  So much for the phrase, "Compromise is a dirty word!"

None of this means that compromise is an easy thing.  We all have principles that sometimes conflict with someone else's principles and beliefs.  A very wise friend of mind who is a highly respected pillar in her church has a long history of helping people and groups within the church to find common ground and points of compromise.  She often will pose this question to someone who is bound and determined to not accept any compromise whatsoever.  "(Name), is this really a hill you're willing to die on?"

In case you think that I'm comparing apples to oranges by seeing a parallel between the present political debt ceiling stalemate in DC with disagreements in a marriage, just ask couples who have been married for any length of time.  No matter how much a husband and wife love each other, debates over such things as spending vs. savings or what should go on the grocery list when money is tight will test the marriage covenant.  How couples work through these areas of disagreement will reveal the degree of sincerity of their wedding vows.

So maybe, we need to have Democrats and Republicans renew their past commitment to help bring unity to our fractured and polarized country. 

Compromise isn't a dirty word.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Sunday Worship Preview - July 31

Sunday, July 31 - (8:15 A.M. & 11:00 A.M. Traditional Services & 9:45 A.M. Praise Service) & Wednesday, August 3 (6:30 P.M. Casual Service @ Crossroads, 2095 Fair Avenue)
Sermon"The Greatest Letter Ever Written: Romans 12-16"

Features - 7th Sunday After Pentecost

Scripture - Romans 15:14-33

Theme - The fourth part of our series on the Book of Romans focuses on chapters 12-16 and the theme of “God’s People in God's World.”

Friday, July 22, 2011

What Are Your Favorite Summer Shoes?

I'm facing a dilemma.  My velcro strap sandals which I have worn for the past 5 to 7 summers needed to be replaced.  I don't think I want to wear sneakers (or "tennis shoes" if you prefer) since I like my feet being able to breathe when it's 98 degrees.  But at least they're comfortable for walking.  Flip flops aren't really my style either since I don't like the flip flop sound they make.

What to do?

We often use the phrase, "our walk with Christ" to speak of our Christian faith.  As I contemplate what my next pair of summer shoes will be, it's also good for me to think about what kind of spiritual shoes/sandals will best help me in my "walk with Christ."

In other words, am I prepared for those times in my journey when it's a long walk with Christ and I need something a little more rugged?  And what about those times when Jesus wants me to get out of my comfort zone and walk on the water, like Peter?  Do I have a pair of beach shoes?  Sometimes, Jesus calls me to offer his good news at a funeral service.  Are my dress shoes available for the task?

A former District Superintendent who is a friend of mine once told me about a time that he met with a pastor who he was about to introduce to the congregation.  The two of them agreed to meet at the District Superintendent's office before going to the church so they could go over some information about this new church.

My friend was surprised when this pastor showed up in sneakers (tennis shoes.)  Thinking that he was going to change shoes before the meeting with the church, the pastor responded, "Nah.  This is what I like to wear.  A suit and tie with tennis shoes."

That didn't go over too well with the people of his new church.  If I remember correctly, this pastor lasted one or two years at his new appointment.  If only he would have thought about what shoes he needs for which part of his "walk with Christ."

Back to my summer sandal/shoe dilemma - Today, I bought a pair of sandal-like shoes with one velcro strap.  I can tell that my feet are going to really hurt if I try to wear them on long walks.

I miss my old sandals!

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

I Saw God's Kingdom Today

Maple Street UMC in Lancaster, Ohio has opened a free store which provides clothing and household items for people in need.  Next to the store, they were serving their weekly Wednesday lunch.  It was a busy place!

As I walked around the aisles, it felt like a little heaven was touching earth.  The hungry were being fed.  The poor were receiving clothes.  And the people of the church were using their gifts to be a blessing to others.

I saw God's kingdom today.

When the Heat Is On - Biblical References

With temperatures in the mid 90s, high humidity, and a daily heat advisory, I became curious as to how many references there are in the bible regarding words related to temperatures.

Here are some of the highlights of my findings:

"Cool" - 4 References
Favorite: Luke 16:24 - "He called out, 'Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.'"

"Hot" - 41 References
Favorite: Revelation 3:15 - "I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot.  I wish that you were either cold or hot."

"Cold" - 23 References
Favorite: Jeremiah 18:14 - "Does the snow of Lebanon leave the crags of Sirion? Do the mountain waters run dry, the cold flowing streams?"

"Heat" - 50 References
Favorite: Genesis 31:40 - "It was like this with me: by day the heat consumed me, and the cold by night, and my sleep fled from my eyes."

"Scorching" - 13 References
Favorite: James 1:11 - "For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the field; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes.  It is the same way with the rich; in the midst of a busy life, they will wither away."

"Sweat" - 6 References
Favorite: "They shall have linen turbans on their heads, and linen undergarments on their loins; they shall not bind themselves with anything that causes sweat."

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Sermon (July 17) - "The Greatest Letter Ever Written: Romans 5-8"

     We continue our four week study of Paul’s letter to the Romans which we began last Sunday.  This is a letter that the Apostle Paul wrote to the Christians who were in Rome around 55 A.D., which was about 25 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection.
     Paul begins his letter by announcing good news.  Not just any good news, but the best news we can ever hear.  And the good news is this.  Even though we have all sinned and have missed the mark in being the people we were created to be, by placing our faith and trust in Jesus Christ, God can make us right with God.
     One of the key components in being a good communicator is to know your audience.  Paul knew this and he writes about this good news in a way that the Christians in Rome would understand.  As we talked about last week, the Church in Rome consisted of both Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians.  For the Jewish believers in Rome, Paul wants them to see that the reason the Jewish people were called by God to be his special and chosen people was that through them, God would bring about the transformation of the world which is good news for the whole world, including those who are non-Jewish.
     And for the non-Jewish believers in Rome, Paul wants them to see that this good news of Jesus Christ is only made possible because of the covenant that God had made with Israel centuries earlier.  Without some understanding of God’s covenant with Israel, the story of Jesus and the good news he brings, makes little or no sense.
     If we flatten out the story and remove the particular way that God has acted through Israel to bring about the good news of Christ, we miss out on how far God was willing to go to rescue us from sin and death.   So keep this in mind as we move along through Paul’s letter.  Think of how what Paul is writing is good news for both Jewish and non-Jewish believers in Christ.
     After Paul announces the good news of Jesus Christ, Paul refers to the creation of the world from the Book of Genesis in the opening chapters.  Paul writes that humans were created to be God’s image bearers and instead we sinned and followed our own way.  The result was that we now have a world that is filled with sin and Paul gives us a long list of sins in Romans 1:28-32.
     From there, Paul begins to tell the story of how God went to plan B to deal with the Adam and sin problem.  God calls Abraham and makes a covenant with him. It would be through this covenant with Abraham and his descendents that God would bring transformation to the world and deal with the problem of sin.
     And this brings us to chapters five through eight which is our focus for today.  In chapter five, Paul again refers back to the creation story and the story of Adam, the first human being.  And he compares Adam’s sin and disobedience which led to sin and death to Jesus’ faithfulness and obedience which leads to holiness and new life.  There can’t be a greater contrast.  One man brings about death and destruction whereas this other man brings about life and transformation.
     Someone has wisely said, “There is a lot of Adam in all of us.”  But thankfully, there can also be a whole lot of Jesus in all of us.
     In chapter six, Paul moves from Adam and Abraham to the Exodus story.  I was in a bible study with a pastor friend of mine and she made the comment that for her, the exodus story is the key story for the whole bible.  And I think she’s right.
     The exodus story is the story of when God’s people were slaves in Egypt and God called Moses to lead the people from slavery and into freedom.  It was through God’s power and might, that the Pharaoh of Egypt finally let the people go.  God parted the Red Sea so that the people could cross through it and that brought them to the wilderness.  It’s in the wilderness that we get the Ten Commandments story where God gave them the law. 
     By following God’s laws, this was how the people of Israel would live out the covenant that God had made earlier with Abraham.  And it would be through this covenant, first through Abraham, and now with Israel, that God was going to transform the world, the way it was always meant to be, a place of justice and peace.
     The exodus story is a wonderful story.  God saves Israel from slavery in Egypt.  God renews the covenant with Israel by giving them the Ten Commandments.  And eventually, they make it into the Promised Land where they build homes and enjoy the fruit of the land. 
     But that isn’t the ending of the story.  From there we read of how Israel would disobey God and instead of living out their covenant, they experienced the consequences of their sins.  They ended up being ruled over by the world powers of Assyria, Babylon, Persia, and the Romans. 
     But even though Israel was unable to fulfill the covenant that God had made with them, here’s the really important thing in all of this.  God still remained faithful.  And to fulfill the covenant and the promise that God had made with Abraham and Israel, God took matters into his own hands by sending Jesus Christ, his only Son into the world.
     Jesus ended up doing what Israel had been unable to do.  And through Jesus’ total obedience to God, he died on a wooden cross.  And through his death, Jesus was able to defeat sin and death once and for all. 
     Charles Wesley, the great Methodist hymn writer put it so well in his great hymn, “O For a Thousand Tongues.”  Referring to Jesus, he writes, “He breaks the power of canceled sin, he sets the prisoner free; his blood can make the foulest clean; his blood availed for me.”
       In Romans 6-8, Paul connects good news of what Jesus did on the cross with the exodus story.  Just like God rescued the Israelites from slavery in Egypt and led them into the Promised Land, through Jesus’ death and resurrection, we can be freed from our sins and be led into newness of life.
     So whenever Paul uses words like “slaves” or “being enslaved” or “set free” or “freed,” these are words that are to remind us of the exodus story.  Paul is connecting the exodus story with the good news of Jesus Christ.  I went verse by verse in chapter 6 and I underlined 12 of these words or phrases.  So here are some examples:
     Romans 6:6 – “We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin.”
     Romans 6:16 – “Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness?
     Romans 6:17 & 18 – “But thanks be to God that you, having once been slaves of sin, have become obedient from the heart to the form of teaching to which you were entrusted and that you, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.”
     Those other references are found in verses 19, 20, and 22.
     Another image that Paul uses to connect what Jesus did on the cross with the exodus story is baptism.  That’s in the opening verses of chapter 6.  By going through the waters of the Red Sea, God was able to lead the people into freedom.  The water in the Sacrament of baptism is to remind us of how Jesus leads us into freedom from our sins through his death and resurrection. 
     In chapter 7, Paul refers a lot to the law, again reminding us of the exodus story and of how God gave the law and the Ten Commandments to the people of Israel when they were in the wilderness.  Paul writes that the law in and of itself cannot rescue us from sin and bondage.
     In chapter 8, Paul writes about the spirit.  In the exodus story, the Israelites were led by a cloud by day and fire by night.  But now through what Jesus has done for us by dying on the cross and rising to new life, the Holy Spirit is what guides us to our inheritance and to our Promised Land.  In Romans 8:14, Paul writes, “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.”
     And here’s the really great part.  If we compare Paul’s letter of Romans to a great musical symphony, then chapter eight would definitely be that part of the composition where it reaches its height.  It’s that part where you feel the goose bumps on your arms and the hair standing up on the back of your neck.  This is where Paul’s retelling of Israel’s story in the light of Jesus’ victory on the cross was headed all along.  And this is why this letter is good news and the greatest letter ever written. 
     First of all, here in chapter eight, Paul tells us that this good news is about all of creation being renewed.  Paul writes in Romans 8:19-21, “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.”
     Paul is lifting up the great Jewish hope that a day will come when all of creation will be renewed and transformed.  And because of what Jesus Christ has done for us through his death and resurrection, this will become a reality.  The Book of Romans isn’t just about me being saved from my sins.  The Book of Romans is also about all of creation being transformed.
     That’s why Paul writes in chapter one about the good news of Jesus Christ.  Thank God because we know all too well of how much our world is in need of the good news of Jesus Christ.
     And thankfully, the good news is meant to be good news for you and for me.  By placing our faith in trust in Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior, we can have an assurance that we will be with God forever.  This last part of Romans 8 is one of my favorite passages of scripture because it claims that we can have an assurance in any given moment that we are children of God.
     Paul writes, “Who will separate us from the love of Christ?  Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril or sword?  No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.  For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, no angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
      This is the assurance that John Wesley, the founder of Methodism experienced when he had his now famous heart-warming Aldersgate experience back in 1738.  It was Paul’s letter to the Romans that prompted him to stand up and say to the people who were gathered for an evening prayer meeting and later record in his journal, “I felt my heart strangely warmed.  I felt I did trust in Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”
      The good news of our faith is not only that Jesus Christ has saved us from our sins, but that we can have an assurance in any given moment that we belong to God.  Maybe you are longing for this kind of assurance in your faith.
      This past Winter, one of our church members, Gina Pressler called me to see if I could come and baptize Brayden Tackett, a seven year old boy in our community who she had been tutoring at his home.
     Brayden had terminal cancer. And he knew that he was going to die.
     Brayden told his family that he wanted to be baptized because in his words, if he was going to die, he wanted to know for sure that he would go to heaven.  And so I went to Brayden's house.  Brayden was playing a video game when I arrived.  I could tell he was a little unsure of who this strange man was who came to visit him.  Even after I explained that I was a pastor of a United Methodist Church and came to get to know him, he seemed a little cautious of this man of the cloth.

     But that all changed quickly when he started putting a puzzle together on the floor. "Hey, do you want to help me with this Spiderman puzzle?" It was that puzzle that began a new special friendship between the two of us.

     After one puzzle, we began work on another one. And then it was time. Family and friends had moved into the room. The bowl was filled with warm water. And I asked Brayden if he was ready to be baptized. All of the sudden, this talkative, quick-humored seven year old was speechless. A serious look came upon his face and he nodded his head in agreement. Yes, he was ready. Oh how he was ready!

     I told Brayden a little about Jesus, how he had lived on this earth a long time ago calling people to follow him and how he helped people come to know God. And I said that he then died on a cross so that we can live with God forever and three days later God helped him to become alive again. I concluded the briefest sermon I have probably ever preached by saying that Jesus is alive and is present with us for his baptism right here in his home.

     "Brayden, the reason we use this water for baptism, is to remind you that just as water helps us to get clean in a bath, God cleans us so that we can be with him forever." After this brief baptism instruction, I felt ready to ask Brayden the big question, "Do you have any questions you want to ask me?"

     By the way he was concentrating on my every word and knowing he was a very outgoing seven year old, I had a hunch that he probably had something to tell me. As he looked intently into my eyes, and after a long 5 to 10 seconds had elapsed, he finally said to me, "I have to pee first."

     I didn't expect that particular comment in that sacred moment but that’s just who Brayden was.  Brayden was beyond his years. He knew to cut to the chase and how to dispense with long conversations. When he said he was read, he was ready.

     Brayden came back from the bathroom with a family member guiding him and after stumbling to the floor since he had some paralysis on one side, he sat back down and said, "I'm ready."

     "Brayden, I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen."  We all laid hands on young Brayden and I offered a prayer that he would always know that Jesus loves him and will always be there for him.

     For the rest of my time in Brayden's home, he stared intently at his lit baptism candle which included his name on it. He then spent time looking at a large cross which was another gift that our church had provided.  And then he sat on my lap and we continued to talk and celebrate his baptism. 

     The next time I visited Brayden, his grandmother told me how much that baptism meant to him and how it had given him a sense of peace.  Brayden passed away on May 16th.  And on Friday, May 20th, I officiated at his funeral service which was held at our Crossroads facility on West Fair Avenue.  The day of his funeral marked the four month anniversary of when I had first met Brayden and baptized him at his home.
     The day before the funeral, I went to the visitation calling hours.  And next to his casket and proudly displayed on the wall was his baptism certificate.
     What’s true for Brayden can also be true for us.  Through Jesus Christ, God has won the victory over sin and death and a time will come when all of creation will be renewed and transformed.
     And as we place our faith and trust in Jesus Christ, we too can have that assurance that nothing will ever separate us from the love of God.  Nothing.  Not even death.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Sunday Worship Preview - July 24

Sunday, July 24 - (8:15 A.M. & 11:00 A.M. Traditional Services & 9:45 A.M. Praise Service) & Wednesday, July 27 (6:30 P.M. Casual Service @ Crossroads, 2095 Fair Avenue)
Sermon"The Greatest Letter Ever Written: Romans 9-11"

Features - 6th Sunday After Pentecost

Scripture - Romans 9:1-5

Theme - The third part of our series on the Book of Romans focuses on chapters 9-11 and the theme of “God’s Faithfulness to Israel.”

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Stop & Smell ... I mean, Stop & Watch the World Cup

Yesterday, I was making hospital visits in two Columbus hospitals.  As I was walking through the cafeteria of the one hospital to head to the lobby and leave, I noticed a gathering of people close to the flat screen tv.  They were watching USA vs. France in the World Cup. 

Now, I have a personality that doesn't usually make room for detours during my day.  When I have a schedule in my mind, I try to stick to it.  I'm a "point 'A' to "point 'B'" kind of guy.

But I couldn't help myself this time.  It was like this force drew me to an empty seat near the tv which is so out of character for me.  There was about fifteen minutes left in the match (game?)  See how much I know about soccer?  Sunday's game (match?) with Brazil (Brasil?) was so exciting that I now felt like I was a member of the USA team, maybe even the 2nd string goalie, especially with my good looks. :)

So anyway, I find a chair and am glued to the passes, the corner kicks, and the "reverse the field plays" (that's a phrase Penny taught me.)  During a slow part of the match (game?) I look around me and there are surgeons, nurses, custodians, and civilians like me all gathered around the tv cheering on USA.  There was not one France fan in that whole cafeteria.  I swear.

The score was tied 1 to 1 when I started watching and when USA made a goal to go ahead, without even thinking, and again, going against my reserved personality in public settings, I yelled out, "Yeah!"  It didn't really matter because everyone else was a hoop'n and a haller'n too.  And it didn't matter that I only got a "C" for my dissect a frog grade in high school.  In that moment, I was one with world renown doctors.  We were Americans and that was OUR team.

People glanced at me and I at them as we all smiled and showed our solidarity.  Many would also glance at their watches, knowing that the late lunch break was turning into a mini vacation.

When the final bell (whistle?) was rung (blown?) and it was official that USA beat France, I began my walk to the parking garage, thankful that it was one of those moments in life when it's good to stop and smell the roses from time to time.  It felt good to be an American and I couldn't help but to think that this is how church is meant to feel every time we gather.  We gather from near and far and from many different backgrounds to worship and praise God together.  And together we celebrate the victory of Jesus Christ over sin and death.

I can't wait to go to church this Sunday...and in the afternoon watch USA play Japan in the final!


Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Thoughts on the Apostle Paul

As our church explores Paul's Letter to the Romans during the July sermon series, "The Greatest Letter Ever Written," it's helpful to spend some time thinking about who the author of the letter was.  We don't have time to fit this into the sermon series, so hopefully this web blog will provide us with some of the background on Paul as an individual.

Who was this man?

Well, first of all, I think it's important to make a distinction between Jesus' ministry and Paul's ministry.  While they both shared the good news of Jesus Christ, Jesus was primarily focused on sharing this with the people of Israel, while Paul needed to translate this message to a largely non-Jewish world.  This is one of the reasons why Jesus was silent on the issue of homosexuality and Paul address the issue in Romans 1. 

The remarkable thing about Paul was that he was able to consistently straddle the two worlds of Judaism and Roman paganism.  Being a citizen of the Roman empire as well as being raised an observant Jew, he became the ideal ambassador to the Gentiles. 
He was able to communicate with the Jewish world that the covenant that God had made with Israel was not meant to be exclusive to them but a means by which God would offer salvation to the whole world through Jesus Christ.  And to the non-Jewish world, he was able to talk about Jesus Christ in the context of Judaism to help them see how the good news of Jesus Christ makes sense.

In his communication to both groups, he was somehow able to help both Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians celebrate the unity they have through Jesus Christ while respecting each other's backgrounds.  This ability to bring different groups together, is a very rare gift and one that is needed desperately today as we are fast becoming a very polarized society based on ethnic groups as well as political persuasions.

One of the reasons his Letter to the Romans is considered the greatest letter ever written is because Paul lays a theological context regarding the good news of Jesus Christ in a way that both Jews and Gentiles can understand. Since most of us come from a non-Jewish context, we would do well to read Romans for all it's worth to help us understand the good news of Jesus Christ in the context of the whole bible.

One other comment on Paul - some have argued that Paul simply continued the patriarchal/sexist attitude that was prevalent during his day.  Couples about to be married are reluctant to choose a text on marriage like Ephesians 5:21-33 because on surface reading, it appears to perpetuate this hierarchical mindset.

Yes, Paul lived during a world where this was the thinking across the board but what is amazing about Paul is that he was bold enough to write such things as, "There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus." (Galatians)

In the Ephesians marriage text, Paul makes another counter-cultural statement by writing, "In the same way, husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies.  He who loves his wife loves himself." - Ephesians 3:28  We also seem to easily screen out the first verse of this passage in which Paul writes, "Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ." (v. 21)

To not factor the cultural norms of 1st century Judaism into the backdrop of Paul's letters is to be like the person who complains that a male writer from the 1940s doesn't use inclusive language in his writings.  My point in all of this is that in the bigger scheme of things, Paul was way ahead in his understanding of the equality of male and female.  It's a shame that many have not interpreted Paul's writing in this context and have mistakenly used Paul as a justification to be sexist.

And finally, Paul teaches us that as followers of Jesus, we need to be rooted in our Judeo/Christian faith while at the same time be in touch with our present day culture.  Paul consistently built bridges between the common non-biblical worldviews of his day and the good news of Jesus Christ in the context of the Jewish faith.  The temptation for Christians is to either build a moat around our faith separating us from the world or to do the opposite and water down the Christian faith to the point that it loses its distinctiveness.

For all these reasons and for many more I could mention, the Apostle Paul was a remarkable person.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Sermon (July 10) - "The Greatest Letter Ever Written: Romans 1-4"

     It is with a fair amount of trepidation that I begin this four week sermon series on the Letter to the Romans.

     The superlatives that are used to talk about Romans make it daunting to think about preaching on it!

     “It is Paul’s finest work – a masterpiece!”

     “It is the greatest letter ever written!”

     Some have even compared it to other great works like Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony to give some sense of its magnitude and excellence.

     Probably more volumes have been written about Romans that any other letter in history.

     It has changed more lives, and changed the world more than any other letter in history.

     It led to the conversion of Augustine in 386 A.D., and later influenced his thinking and writing, which has had a huge impact on the church ever since.

     Martin Luther’s reading of Romans shaped his theology, and was a significant part of the Protestant Reformation.

     It was after hearing about Paul’s letter to the Romans that John Wesley had his heart warming Aldersgate experience, and from that point on, the Methodist Movement began to explode.

     Yet, as Eugene Peterson says in his intro to Romans, “When this letter arrived in Rome, hardly anyone read it, certainly no one of influence.  There was much to read in Rome – imperial decrees, exquisite poetry, finely crafted moral philosophy – and much of it was world class.  And yet in no time, as such things go, this letter left all those other writings in the dust.

     The letter to the Romans is a piece of exuberant and passionate thinking.  Paul takes the well-witnessed and devoutly believed fact of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth and thinks through its implications.  Paul writes to tell us how the death and resurrection of Jesus has changed the direction of world history, and at the same time the life of every man, woman, and child on the planet.”

     Over these Sundays in July, we’re going to work our way through Paul’s letter to the Romans.  It is a letter that is meant to be read in its entirety.

     Although there are many, many well-known verses that are instantly recognizable throughout Romans, individually they do not do justice to the whole letter.  For the letter in its entirety is more like a masterful symphony, whose sum is much greater than its parts.  Just listening to a few measures played by one violin doesn’t allow one to appreciate the whole.

     Paul’s letter to the Romans is probably one of the last letters he wrote.  It was most likely written from Corinth around A.D. 55.

     Paul didn’t start the church in Rome, like he had started so many churches throughout the Eastern provinces of the Roman Empire.  He wanted to continue his evangelism in the Western provinces, and take the gospel all the way to Spain.  He needed the help of the church in Rome if he was going to be able to do this.

     By the time Paul wrote Romans, the church in Rome was divided.  When the gospel was first preached in Rome, probably by Peter, there were many Jews living there.  Like elsewhere, many of them believed the gospel Peter shared, and became believers that Jesus was the Messiah.  They came to be known as Jewish Christians, because they retained their Jewish customs even though they were Christian.

     But many Gentiles in Rome also heard Peter preach, and became Christians.  They had no Jewish background, and didn’t pick up any of the Jewish customs.  They came to be known as Gentile Christians.

     Sometime in the 40s, before Paul wrote this letter, the Emperor Claudius had expelled all the Jews from Rome, including the Jewish Christians.

     During their expulsion, the Church in Rome continued under the Gentile Christians.  And several years later when the Jews and Jewish Christians were allowed to return to Rome, the Jewish Christians would naturally have rejoined the church they had left.

     And this created tension between the two groups.  The Jewish Christians were trying to understand their faith in Christ through their Jewish practices and understandings.  And the Gentile Christians were trying to understand the gospel of Jesus through their pagan background and their Roman roots.

     This background helps us understand some of the topics that Paul takes on in Romans.

     We’re going to be focusing on the first four chapters of Romans this morning.  Next Sunday, we’ll look at chapters 5-8.  On July 24, we’ll get to chapters 9 – 11 and then we’ll conclude on July 31st with the remaining chapters, 12 – 16.

     Paul begins the letter to the Romans by introducing himself to them.  Remember, he has never been to Rome, and he didn’t plant the Church in Rome.  He uses an interesting juxtaposition of adjectives to describe himself.  On one hand he is an apostle, who has been set apart for the gospel of God.  And on the other hand, he refers to himself as a slave of Jesus Christ.

     From that introduction, Paul gives thanks for the Christians in the Church in Rome.  He regularly prays for them.  And he tells them that he was wanted to come and meet them for a long time, but has never been able to yet.  He wants to proclaim the gospel among them.  He wants to strengthen them with spiritual gifts.  He wants to encourage them, and be encouraged by them. 

     Paul had longed to take the gospel beyond Rome and all the way to Spain.  In order to do this, he would need some help both with other people to join him, and with finances for the journey.  This is how he had worked previously in starting new churches throughout the Eastern provinces, and undoubtedly he was planning to use the same method to reach the Western provinces.

      Paul then begins to lay the groundwork for the message that he will unpack throughout the rest of the letter.  That is, the Good News of Jesus Christ revealed by God is for everyone in the world.  Paul believed that everyone in the world is in need of the good news of Jesus Christ.

     Since the beginning of time and in all of God’s creation, God has shown his eternal power and divine nature in the things he has made.  No one has an excuse not to worship God, but people have still turned away from God, and separated themselves from him.  Every human being is guilty of sin.  But, the Good News of Jesus Christ is for everyone by faith.

     When I was in seminary, I had a New Testament professor, who pointed out the list of sins that Paul mentions toward the end of chapter 1, and he said how we’re all in that list somewhere.  Paul’s point is that we all miss the mark of what it means to be the people we were created to be.

     In chapter 2, Paul teaches us about the foolishness of judging others.  No one has the right to judge another, for no one is without guilt.  Judge not, lest ye be judged!

     The story is told of a rich man who was sailing for Europe on one of those great transatlantic ocean liners.  When he went on board, he found that another passenger was to share the cabin with him.  After going to see the accommodations, he came up to the purser's desk and inquired if he could leave his gold watch and other valuables in the ship's safe.  He explained that ordinarily he never availed himself of that privilege, but he had been to his cabin and had met the man who was to occupy the other berth. Judging from his appearance, he was afraid that he might not be a very trustworthy person.  The purser accepted the responsibility for the valuables and remarked, 'It's all right, sir, I'll be very glad to take care of your valuables for you. Your cabin mate has been up here and left his for the same reason!”

    God is the only one in a position to judge.  Only God knows every fact about us in order to judge righteously.  Paul writes that everyone will be repaid according to their deeds.  God will not show any partiality.  Gentiles and Jews will be judged by God; Gentiles will be judged apart from the Jewish Law, and Jews will be judged under the Law.  Paul rightly teaches that a person’s actions reveal a person’s true inner character.

     In chapter 3, Paul continues to show that no one is righteous—not the Jew, and not the Gentile.  Everyone is under the power of sin.

     In verses 3:10-18 Paul uses 9 different Old Testament verses to prove the depraved state of human beings. 

     “There is no one who is righteous, not even one.”

     “All have turned aside, together they have become worthless; there is no one who shows kindness, there is not even one.”

     “Their throats are opened grave; they use their tongues to deceive.”

      “The venom of vipers is under their lips.”

     “Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.”

     An illustration of how an Eskimo kills a wolf is a good example of how we are slaves to sin:

     "First, the Eskimo coats his knife blade with animal blood and allows it to freeze. Then he adds another layer of blood, and another, until the blade is completely concealed by frozen blood.

     "Next, the hunter fixes his knife in the ground with the blade up. When a wolf follows his sensitive nose to the source of the scent and discovers the bait, he licks it, tasting the fresh frozen blood. He begins to lick faster, more and more vigorously, lapping the blade until the keen edge is bare.

     Feverishly now, harder and harder the wolf licks the blade in the arctic night.  So great becomes his craving for blood that the wolf does not notice the razor-sharp sting of the naked blade on his own tongue, nor does he recognize the instant at which his insatiable thirst is being satisfied by his OWN warm blood. His carnivorous appetite just craves more--until the dawn finds him dead in the snow!"

     It is a fearful thing that people can be "consumed by their own sinful pursuits." Only God's grace keeps us from the wolf's fate.

     Yet, as bound by sin as people are, God is all the way at the other end of the scale—completely righteous! 

     In well-known verses from Romans 3:23 Paul writes, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” 

     But he goes on to say, “They are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith.”

     Those who are justified by faith have received, not achieved, favor with God and therefore have nothing to boast about. 

     It is all the righteousness of God revealed in Jesus Christ that God offers as a free gift to those who have faith which justifies us in God’s eyes.  It is Jesus’ righteousness, not ours which sets things straight.

     Once there was a man in England who put his Rolls-Royce on a boat and went across to the continent to go on vacation.

     While he was driving around Europe, something happened to the motor of his car.  He cabled the Rolls-Royce people back in England and asked, "I'm having trouble with my car; what do you suggest I do?"

     Well, the Rolls-Royce people flew a mechanic over! The mechanic repaired the car and flew back to England and left the man to continue his vacation.   As you can imagine, the fellow was wondering, "How much is this going to cost me?"

     So when he got back to England, he wrote the people a letter and asked how much he owed them.  He received a letter from the office that read:  "Dear Sir: There is no record anywhere in our files that anything ever went wrong with a Rolls-Royce."

     That’s justification!  That’s what Paul is writing about in this letter, that even though we have all missed the mark and have sinned, the good news is that through God’s grace in Jesus Christ, we can be made right.

     In chapter 4, Paul begins to show how faith has always been the way in which God justifies humans as being righteous.  He uses the example of Abraham from the Old Testament

     God promised Abraham that he would be the father of a great nation.  And even though Abraham was old, and his wife Sarah was barren, Abraham still believed God would keep his promise.  Romans 4:3 says, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.”

     Abraham believed God even before he had been circumcised as the sign of God’s promise.  Therefore, Paul writes, Abraham is the father of both Jew and Gentile alike.  Abraham was fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised he would do.

          Paul says that the story of Abraham’s faith recorded in the book of Genesis, where the bible says his faith was reckoned to him as righteousness was not just written for Abraham’s sake.  It was written for us as well!

     “For it will be reckoned to us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification.”

     John Wesley agreed with the early Protestant Reformers that justification is making our relationship with God right through Jesus Christ.  But he went a little farther in his understanding, and taught that God’s mercy and grace shown in the suffering and death of Jesus on our behalf, pardons our sins and restores our capacity for love of God and neighbor.

     It results in a renewal of the image of God in us that had been damaged by sin, so that we might begin lifelong growth in Christ-likeness as the Holy Spirit enables us to love God and neighbor.  The theological word for this process is the word, “sanctification.”

   Our justification in Christ begins our lifelong process of sanctification through Christ.

     These opening four chapters of Romans invite us to think about some very important and fundamental issues that every person needs to wrestle with whether they have a religious faith or not. 

     What does it mean to be human?  Why do I often struggle in being the person I know I’m supposed to be?  And most importantly, what or who can help me to be the person I was created to be? 

     Paul helps us to think about these important questions in the opening of his letter but he also lets us know early on this good news when he writes in Romans 1:16, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith.”

     Just think, today, in this very moment, this good news can be true for each and every one of us here today.  Through faith in Jesus Christ, God is more than able to save us from our sins so that we can be the people we were created to be.  All you need is to have faith that this is true for your life.

     Now, if you think that is really, really good news, just wait until we get to chapters 5 through 8 for next Sunday.  Like a great symphony, this composition is about to reach a glorious crescendo.